Public relations tribes in the global village

There is a recent tendency to divide public relations practitioners around their engagement with social media or digital communications – creating different tribes. I think this is fallacious – here are my reasons why.



When I wrote my answers to the PR Conversations Proust Questionnaire five years ago this very week, I mentioned Orwell’s 1984 as a work of fiction that had influenced me. I stand by that decision, and most of my other responses, apart from my identification with an academic tribe. I said that in my PhD work I am a critical realist, but over the past half a decade, I’ve come to identify myself as a social constructionist. Although maybe I’m a realist social constructionist!

As a PR practitioner, I’d never describe myself as Orwellian if we take that to mean in favour of oppressive communications – but as Sam Jordison states, people tend to use Orwell to reflect their own beliefs. This was evident when Marshall McLuhan wrote about George Orwell stating:

Trouble with duffers like George Orwell is that they satirize something that happened 50 years ago as a threat of the future!

The Canadian, McLuhan, may seem contemporary to us owing to interpretations of his work as prescient about media trends. Yet he was born in 1911, just eight years after Orwell was born in British India. McLuhan lived until 1980, dying in his sleep having never recovered fully from suffering a stroke a year earlier, where Orwell succumbed in 1950, from the effects of contracting tuberculosis three years before.

McLuhan spent some time working in advertising later in his life. Orwell worked in the Censorship Department of the British Ministry of Information during the second world war. Different tribes of communicators, while, in terms of birth dates, they were of the same generation.

But this is not an undergraduate or school essay offering a “compare and contrast” of these two men as writers, thinkers and communicators.

Instead I am considering modern public relations tribes, in relation to McLuhan’s concept of the global village – as discussed in this video from 1960:

McLuhan argues that the word ‘tribal’ is vitally important because the concept of an individual was less relevant than being part of the group, and being able to act “with it” (as used to be trendy to say back then).

In his contention of the influence of “the media” (photographs, movies, television), in changing how we see the world, McLuhan states the teenager replaced the adolescent, who had become obsolescent. The ad man, Howard Gossage, interpreted McLuhan’s theory as the teenager being the “first generation of the electronic age“.

This tribe existed some forty years before the Digital Natives were conceptualised by Marc Prensky. The Natives tribe now label the Digital Immigrants as duffers. But as Prensky articulates, his two tribes should not be divided by a presumption of their knowledge or competence with technology – rather his point is that the younger tribe “know only the digital culture”, where those who were once McLuhan’s teenagers had clearly “lived in two cultures: the pre-digital and the digital”.

In contrast to this dichotomy, Philip Young has argued for a more inclusive term, Digital Naturals, to recognise more of a continuum towards those:

individuals who are comfortable in an online environment, being equipped through experience and exposure to both its cultural norms and the technological competencies required to operate effectively.

Yet in our modern world when even those who were adolescents (not teenagers) in their younger days have some level of technological competence in our “digital age”, I spy some tribal behaviour among public relations practitioners in the global village.

I’m going to apply a bit of unscientific, netnography, based on online reporting of last week’s FutureComms15 event. Here, Dan Slee concluded there was “a mass punch-up between people who give a stuff”. So the tribe in the room cared about PR, but were divided by whether they felt it was dead or alive, or could be categorised around some other line of contention (age, involvement in CIPR, for example).

As an outsider to the event, the netnographer in my own blog post, what I see are various mini-tribes, each making an argument that PR has changed – must change – based on the same argument as McLuhan’s identification of the teenager. That the arrival of new technology makes the adolescent PR obsolescent.

In my view, they are mistaken. Yes, there are differences between adolescents, teenagers, digital natives and the older post-millennials – but there are also many similarities. Both in terms of how they were/are as young people, but as a cross-generational society.

The world is not simply defined along a progressive continuum. Some things do improve and get better. Other aspects of life get worse and some stay much the same. Sometimes things that start out looking like great advances, turn out to not be all that great. There are things that are just different, just new, or just pointless. There are upsides and downsides of digital technology, and its impact on public relations practitioners.

We should also not dismiss the past as there is much to be learned there (as our 1948 book chapter serialisation has already shown).

The shiny ‘new’ acronyms of SEO, PESO, alongside ‘new terms’ such as content and storytelling, still reflect essentially what we communicate and how we do so, ideally within an environment that is mindful of the benefits of hearing what others have to say as well.

So let’s not forget that people have always talked with each other, and with other people who are employed in organisations, and they still do so, in person as well as using the rather old fashioned print medium, such as letters, and last century’s technologies such as telephone or email.

Our work involves thinking, ‘real world’ sensory experiences and just doing stuff, as individuals, in groups and in wider society. As a tribe of human beings, public relations practitioners still do much of their work, and most probably always will do (unless or until we are replaced by robots), without the aid of technology, even when communications may additionally be informed, crafted, transmitted, recorded, reported and amplified throughout the global village.

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8 Replies to “Public relations tribes in the global village

  1. A few days ago, I promised a comment, but I’ve been busy and only returned to this forum today.In between, I’ve been doing a lot of related thinking, some intentionally focused on this forum, and some indirectly related.

    But all related to Heather’s last sentence: “As a tribe of human beings, public relations practitioners still do much of their work, and most probably always will do (unless or until we are replaced by robots), without the aid of technology, even when communications may additionally be informed, crafted, transmitted, recorded, reported and amplified throughout the global village.”

    Heather’s essay started off by forcing me to look up "fallacious." I was pretty sure I understood the word, but it was worth checking.

    And the point of my reference to "fallacious" and the quoting of the sentence containing the words "much of their work" is that it is necessary for message-sender and message-receiver to agree what words mean before they get too high-falutin'.

    What is "much of my work" is a question Heather's essay has forced me to ask, since I promised to respond here. If I am awake, I am probably thinking, and much of my work involves thinking.

    So yes, "much of my work" does not involve technology, and "much of my work" never did, as long as we don't get picky and count hearing and seeing as biological technology.

    The next step in determining my "tribe" might be how I relate to others. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has a news story today about meetings. Decades ago, I was in a lot of face to face meetings, formal and informal, planned or spontaneous. Now I'm hardly in any face to face meetings, other than with my partner at the next desk.

    So that could be a tribal change.

    What I was thinking about over the past week was the use of livestreaming video, including who touches knobs and dials; who acts as hosts, who acts as guests, who scouts, selects and manages locations, who promotes the show (and how and for how much money), who creates scripts and shot lists — assuming any scripts and shot lists are created, and more.

    And this brings my thinking back to the ideas that technology encourages me to think different – A Matrox Monarch encoder I can show my ideas to anyone who wants to click on a link, without them making any commitment to me.

    And that could be good. I'll have to do the social media math.


    1. Brian – I was going to apologise for using the word ‘fallacious’ – but then as someone who is constantly looking words up (both in a paper dictionary and online), I don’t think it is a bad thing to stop and reflect on what we understand by words or concepts and what others mean. For me, words are socially constructed and so I think that in reading, and discussion, it is naturally to pause and check what everyone understands or thinks. That’s part of communication I feel.

      My concern would be if we are forced by our tribal affiliations and/or technology to limit our vocabulary or comply with limited or specific meanings, particularly if that meant we lost the value of nuance or richness of language.

      I believe this is one of the things that sets us humans apart from the robots – we don’t always mean what we say or say what we mean (to cite from Lewis Carroll).

      I’m also happy to embrace new words – whether those are technological terms or ones that originate with specific tribes (as ‘youth culture’ is want to do). I also love old words – that may have lost their meaning – and I especially love how we think of words or phrases as contemporary, when they are ancient, or were made up (as Shakespeare frequently did).

      In terms of your live streaming video tribe – that’s quite interesting on many levels. Is the technology your tribe – or is it enabling you to connect with a tribe? Is that different from the traditional face-to-face tribal meetings but with potentially a more geographically spread tribe?

      1. Since I last wrote, I’ve been involved (stretching the meaning) in two live web broadcasts.

        1/ We’ve connected a $3000 movie camera to a Matrox Monarch and broadcast another church service, very impressed by the technical quality of the pictures and sound. But the show itself included a lot of people walking around, or milling around, or walking out of the frame, or speaking words that seemed confused and needed to be resaid – which the speaker did — because that is what happens in real life.

        With only one camera, it’s almost impossible to present a smooth show.

        On Friday, I spent 45 minutes picking up the encoder from the rental company. On Saturday, two hours driving to and from the church, to deliver the encoder, and two hours in the church helping set it up, and the official technician spent an hour in travel and two hours setting up.

        On Sunday, he was back at the church for several hours, to run the equipment..

        All this for an audience of about 65 people.

        2/ I noticed on Twitter a reference to an upcoming Google Hangout by Shel Holtz — famous fresh thinker on PR, for those who do not know him — and some other IABC Fellows.
        So I tweeted about it a bit, and made a point of tuning in. To tune in to a Google hangout you just go to a web site you’ve been told about (so you know where to find it) and click.
        Google then lets you watch the show. In this case, 5 people in various locations, all leaning into computers with web cams, mostly badly lit, one in a dump of an office, one with terrible resolution and color … in general, so bad technically that I started wondering how important they thought this event was. Not very, was my conclusion.
        But the words were interesting, at least to me.
        And they had a total of five viewers.
        Once again, I started wondering how important they thought this event was. Not very, was my conclusion, if each of five IABC Fellows could not get at least three or four of their “tribe” to watch.

        We’ve got a test show scheduled with a lawyer in a couple of weeks, to make sure the equipment works from his office. Then we’ll have a week for his web advisors to use social media to build an audience for a 1-hr. phone in show answering questions about divorce.

        It will be interesting to see how many callers there are, at 8 pm on a Wednesday night.


        1. Brian – thank you for answering my questions. Neither example seems to really be an effective way of engaging a motivated tribe.

          Not sure what lessons you take, but one may be that the effort involved in technology needs to match with the tribe. Also that good technology and bad content is as futile as poor technology and good content.

          Overall though, seems to be an importance and return on investment question coming through from your observations. If it is worth doing, then it is worth doing well – but be sure it is worth doing in the first place, n’est pas?

  2. Good post, Heather. I think it worth pointing out that McLuhan was deeply pessimistic about the influence of modern technology and no more so than when he described how it threatened individualism and encouraged the rebirth of tribalism. He worried about how we had all (except, that is, for media studies students) been influenced by subliminal messaging into a “docile acceptance of media impact [which] has made them prisons without walls for their human user”. He even blamed the rise of Hitler on webs of “deep tribal engagement” that modern radio and the use of newfangled public address systems encouraged. He was, in short, a technological determinist. It is then quite ironic – or perhaps revealing – how Wired magazine and Silicon Valley’s Web 2.0 pioneers adopted him as their hero and how earlier he (a committed Catholic) became an icon among individualistic hippies who advocated free love. His work, however, remains valuable and worth proper scrutiny….not least when we start to reflect, as you do in your opening, about how adults no longer grow up gracefully but cling instead to their youth – in the mud of Glastonbury recently – like a teenager who won’t throw away his or her toys when the time to do so arrives.

    1. Paul – of course, one of the things that tribes seem to do is determine who is considered part of their tribe and who is not.

      I was reading about Gilles Deleuze (French philosopher) and Félix Guattari (French psychiatrist and political activist) yesterday as I’ve developed a perspective of ‘rhizomatic middleness’ in a chapter I’m writing.

      What fascinated me, was how wonderfully childish the behaviour of various ‘intellectuals’ could be – perhaps that’s inherent in modern tribes which don’t depend on a close network for survival, but for status and identity.

  3. The concept of tribes in public relations first struck me when I read Greg Leichy’s paper – The Cultural Tribes of Public Relations (2003) – which is available here:

    Obviously this is an academic paper, based on narratives within practice and now 12 years old, but the concept has validity I feel in this occupation where there are a “cacophony of voices”, “a balkanized set of mini-disciplines” and what Cropp & Pincus had described (in Robert Heath’s excellent Handbook of Public Relations in 2001), as the “field’s fuzzy and continually gerrymandered boundaries”.

    This metaphor of territory and cultural tribes seems to me to continue to be relevant, particularly when some tribes have set their sites on the ‘brave new world’ (let’s have a bit of Huxley too), of the internet or online environment.

    I’m not sure the tribes are nation-driven, although one could certainly argue that the US and UK are seeking colonisation, and cultural supremacy via the dominance of the English language online. (Other English speaking nations don’t seem so dogmatic about their perspectives). And these US/UK voices are undoubtedly dominated by those who are on the agency/consultancy ‘side’ of any landgrab.

    But that’s nothing new as my recent research into UK PR at the end of the 1980s revealed a lot of criticism then by in-house people of the dominance of agency folk in the industry and professional body publications. But then, these are the people who need to monetarise their activities, so the new territories (whatever they may be at the time) signal financial opportunity, especially if the old lands are increasingly dominated by more stable clans (ie in-house).

    I agree with you that there is much land outside the online world, not just with media relations, but corporate social responsibility and community relations (including educational outreach), most political and financial PR (the most lucrative fields) which rely on ‘real world’ relationships, and lots of other ‘stakeholder engagement’. But the relationship driven approaches probably aren’t as easy to harvest financially or to present as ‘shiny baubles’ for the in-house natives to buy.

    I wouldn’t simply divide the tribes by in-house vs agency/consultancy though as there are plenty of those in organisations who are champions of the social media employee advocacy concept, and lots of consultants who do make their fortunes in the more traditional commenda (agency) terrain of being mediators between others. We can also divide along corporate vs marketing PR, and lots of other lines.

    So to answer your question, I feel there are many tribes, and what you note is one particular form, that seems to me to want to mine a rather narrow, but currently perhaps attractive furrow. Whether or not that truly turns out to be either a goldmine or a vanguard, who knows?

  4. Thanks for this, Heather. I’m certainly witnessing “tribal” behaviour all over the place; however, from my perspective a lot of it seems to be country specific, primarily American but of course you’ve demonstrated some healthy British tribalism, too.

    To your SEO and PESO tribe affiliations, I would add the people who seem to believe that “organizational” “online community” can now replace most other forms of outreach (such as media relations). And then, of course, there is the rabid tribe (maybe tribes) of social marketing consultants (aided by vendor companies), looking to turn clients’ employees into (so-called) “advocates” via their personal social media accounts.

    A question for you regarding the in-house versus agency/consultancy divide: Are practitioners divided into two “tribes” of thinking about what public relations is all about…or do you think the tribalism is more of a subset, particularly in regard to consultancy offerings (i.e., communication as a commodity)?

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